It seems only fitting as we conclude our month of horror to talk about Wes Craven’s Scream, a meta-textual horror film about the horror genre. The film focuses on Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a California high schooler whose mom was murdered a year earlier, to the date. A rash of murders by a costumed man known as ghostface, breaks out in the small town, all seeming to centralize around Sidney. The comedic and/or unsettling conclusion, depending on how you look at it, is (SPOILER ALERT) that the murderers are Sidney’s boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and his friend, Stu (Matthew Lillard), psychotic cinephiles intent on pulling off the perfect murder thanks to their cinematic cross-references.
It’s a real love letter to horror, but its relationship to the genre is more complex than that. It abides by the rules of horror set forth (virgins live, the promiscuous die, a blonde dies first, the part of the horror movie where the villain comes back for one last scare, the person you first suspect is often the right person, etc.) but subverts them. Sidney, who maintains her virginity, for nearly the entire movie, loses it to Billy in an effort to let go some of her maternal trauma. Unfortunately, for Sidney, this act unknowingly completes Billy’s circuit of women-hating as he murdered her mother a year earlier for sleeping with his father and driving his own mother away. Thus, Sidney, tries to fulfill her ideas of normal teenagehood and, in the process, unwittingly affirms Billy’s noxious notions that all women are whores who deserve to die. Craven elucidates the insanity of this catalyst, not just in this movie and this instance, but as essentially one of the foundations of all horror movies. So while, he adheres to the “rules” of horror, he doesn’t allow it to negate his own moral compass. Craven insists on a tough female lead (two, if you count Courtney Cox as Gail Weathers, the busybody news reporter who pulls the final trigger on Billy), “winning” the deadly game that Billy and Stu have forced upon the town.
One of the best parts about Scream though, is the element of comedy that runs throughout. Writer Kevin Williamson is aware that horror movies are supposed to scare but they’re also supposed to be fun (and as pointed out earlier, have agency, no one should be a slave to the oeuvre at large). What an incredible moment when Stu is bleeding to death and realizes the police have been informed of his identity as the killer. Sobbing in pain and fear, “my mom and dad are gonna be so mad at me!” It goes without saying that this movie is the most fun, and with the most pay-off, to fans of the horror genre who are able to luxuriate in the references, both explicit and implicit. For example, the scene where Sidney tells Ghostface on the phone, thinking it’s her friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy), that she doesn’t like horror movies. “They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” Sidney is the voice of reason, and yet, in the next scene she’s running up the stairs away from the killer. There’s an infinite amount to say about this movie, and I’ll avoid doing it the injustice of trying to cover it in a column. Just go see it, re-watch it, be happy there are movies like it in a world where, “they’re all the same,” can be a real criticism.